Investigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on stranger sex offender behaviour and victim vulnerability

This research will examine how the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting lockdown restrictions have impacted the nature of stranger sexual offences.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Professor Jessica Woodhams
Police region
West Midlands
Collaboration and partnership

Serious Crime Analysis Section of the National Crime Agency.

Level of research
Professional/work based
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

Previous research has documented how factors within an immediate crime situation, and at an exo- and macro-system level, affect stranger sex offender behaviour and victim vulnerability (Beauregard & Leclerc, 2007; WHO, 2014; Woodhams and others, 2020; Woodhams & Labuschagne, 2010).

It is these factors (economic, social), as well as individual victim, witness and offender routine activities, that are being affected by COVID-19 now and, likely, in the longer-term, that this research aims to examine in much more detail.

An initial, descriptive analysis of cases of stranger sex offences received by the project partner has found increases in the use of moderate violence and burglary behaviours in the first five weeks of lockdown. The research team has begun to study shifting patterns of sexual violence on an international scale following crises, including COVID-19 (Flowe and others, 2020).

Based on this research, and seminal psychological and criminological theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979; Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Mischel, 1973), the research questions are:

  1. How has the COVID-19 outbreak and associated mandates affected:

    a) Who the perpetrators are and who is victimised through stranger sex offending?

    b) Where in time and space offenders and victims meet and where the offences occur (including changes in the characteristics of offence location)?

    c) What happens in the offence (including physical violence inflicted on the victim, precautions taken by the offender)?

    d) How these variables co-occur to create patterns of offending?

    e) The overall rate of stranger sexual offending?

  2. Which of these changes are short-lived versus enduring (within the period studied)?


The research objectives in priority order are as follows.

  1. To create much needed, new knowledge for criminal justice entities regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic and associated mandates – particularly those that have restricted and changed the public’s movements – have affected stranger sexual offending in the UK.

    In particular, determining who is vulnerable to this type of offending, who the perpetrators are, and how/where these types of offences occur, and if this has changed since the pandemic or during the pandemic with changing restrictions.

  2. To disseminate our findings widely and at regular intervals thereby reaching the right beneficiaries to influence practice and policy in this area in the UK and overseas.

  3. To identify whether changes in stranger sexual offending since/during the pandemic are short-lived or enduring (within the time period studied) and how observed changes in stranger sexual offending relate to macro-level trends in crime rates being studied by other research groups. 

  4. To bring new insights to the limited, existing literature regarding situational crime prevention and sexual offending.

  5. To provide a practical example of how impactful research can be conducted via genuine collaboration between the social and engineering sciences.

Research methodology

Our project partner, the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) of the National Crime Agency, has a unique, large dataset of serious stranger sexual offences. Using this, we will document how offender modus operandi (MO) and victim vulnerability changes from March 2020 to September 2021, and compare this to one year of pre-COVID-19 data (March 2019 to February 2020).

These data (~6,000 offences) will be subject to repeated, multi-level analyses using complementary expertise in analytical techniques from the social and engineering sciences. For example, relative frequencies for behaviours will be compared for periods of differing restrictions, and trends will be compared to macro-level findings regarding crime rates being produced by other research groups.

The COVID-19 crisis is unlikely to impact on specific behaviours in isolation. Therefore, the researchers will also study patterns of co-occurrence between behaviours using clustering techniques.

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